Why absence management should be top of mind for HR professionals | HR Leader podcast

In a podcast interview with HR Leader (opens a new window), Emma Musgrave spoke to Morag Fitzsimons, National Manager of Employee Care at Lockton on the benefits of putting absence management front and centre – and the risks that come with not having effective measures that speak to this.

Here’s a few takeaways from the podcast interview which is available in full here (opens a new window).

Truly understanding absence

A 2019 Direct Health Absence Management Survey found that the average number of sick leave days moved from 9 days to 11.2 days per Australian.

Traditionally, absence has just been thought about in terms of sick leave, but absence can show itself in many ways. Absence can arise in areas such as presenteeism (opens a new window) and high levels of regrettable turnover. It can also be shown in people taking extended periods of leave without pay.

Absence is a broad topic and businesses fall into the trap, certainly historically, of thinking of absence as just sick leave. People can be ‘absent’ even when physically at work.

Back in 2016, SafeWork Australia performed an assessment where sick leave alone was estimated to cost Australian businesses $6bn by 2030. When you now add in an additional layer of people with depression, presenteeism, and other drivers of absence, these levels could rise a further $6.3bn.

This is a huge bill for Australian businesses. That’s why employers are now starting to think about employees and their whole selves, rather than whether they’re simply physically present or physically absent at work.

Who engages in absence and well-being programs?

People assume that well-being programs are a list of services for employees to choose from. Research tells us that employers generally only get a 20% employee uptake of any well-being service provided and it tends to be the ‘worried well’ which is a term coined by Dane Carroll. It’s defined as those that are ‘well’ but are worried about becoming unwell. They are more likely to engage in a workforce well-being program than those who perhaps need it. That’s mainly because they’re concerned about their privacy and what will happen if their employer thinks they have a chronic health condition and whether will that change their view of them.

So if employers have a shopping list of services, often it doesn’t last very long because employees don’t engage. Organisations then say: “We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on services that a very small proportion of the workforce is using.”

That’s why well-being needs to be thought of as a holistic cultural piece, not just services people can access because they’re employed. This is a difference we’re seeing between very successful well-being programs and those that might be struggling for survival.

Dissecting absence data

It's important to understand what’s driving absence in a business. Understand the demographics of your workforce by asking the right questions. Do you have a predominantly ageing workforce as many employers in Australia now do? Do you have a young workforce? What do they need from a life stage perspective?

The life stage of a 25-year-old is very different from a 55-year-old, but just because someone is 55 and getting close to 60 doesn’t mean they’re thinking about stopping work.

You have to take a deep dive into data that all businesses have: sick leave, turnover, etc. Look at those who are not taking leave. Look at trends and patterns. Is poor well-being being driven by poor culture, or is it being driven by the aging shift pattern? What is driving it?

For example, you may find that there are significant amounts of single-day absences in an ageing workforce. This might just mean that people are taking time off to recover so they can come back to work and continue to work for the rest of the week.

When you focus your well-being solution to address certain needs, you will likely get a higher take-up and then you’ll also be able to monitor whether you’re genuinely seeing a return because you know what you’re looking at and where there’s room for improvement.

Well-being is no longer just massages, physio, and those sorts of things. It might be workforce planning. Or it might be changing shift patterns. To reduce absence levels, people need flexibility.

Full podcast interview here (opens a new window).